Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright
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“You can’t let your father’s mistakes define who you are,” Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) tells T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Black Panther. Picking up the threads from Captain America: Civil War, the movie sees the young heir to the kingdom of Wakanda mourning the late King T’Chaka (John Kani), and struggling to step into his now vacant throne. Wakanda, seen by the outside world as an impoverished farming nation, has deliberately disguised itself: a highly advanced society, built upon on the technology and wealth of the rare metal Vibranium, and thriving on its collective sense of heritage, duty and respect. With the wider world becoming increasingly unstable, though, T’Challa’s inheritance comes at a time when he must make a choice his father avoided: is now the time for Wakanda to reveal its true nature?
The question is one that ripples through every aspect of this remarkable movie, resonating off-screen as well as on. Directed by Ryan Coogler with a muscular heft, it’s a film that shoulders the burden of history with a weighty conscience and a light touch. It’s a popcorn flick that understands its significance – years on from the Blade trilogy and Halle Berry’s Catwoman, this is the first solo outing for a black superhero in Marvel’s modern cinematic universe – and dives into it with both awareness and excitement. T’Challa’s dilemma mirrors the same milestone in Marvel’s own development, and in the long-overdue progression of mainstream cinema: coursing through Black Panther’s veins is a thrilling feeling of the past giving way to the future, of doors being flung open.
From the opening frames, Black Panther’s heritage is intrinsically wrapped up in its cutting-edge fantasy, as an animated sequence sees a father relate to his son the origins of Wakanda, and of its reclusive existence. But it’s a matter of minutes until we jump to the streets of Oakland, California, where we see the reality of modern America and we’re introduced to Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a black-ops soldier with a connection to Wakanda. He believes that the right thing to do is use Wakanda’s Vibranium to help African Americans correct years of poverty and oppression – an extreme radicalisation of a logical argument that puts him firmly on a collision course with our hero.
Coogler’s script, penned with Joe Robert Cole, leans into these meaty political ideas with relish, tying the themes of isolationism and revolution into a family drama that feels Shakespearean. Angela Bassett grounds the Wakandan royal family as its regal matriarch, while Daniel Kaluuya introduces a passionate vengeance to the fringes of Wakandan society, after suffering his own family’s loss. At its heart are the fiercely charismatic Boseman and Jordan, the former the still, calm core around which the latter’s wild rebel sprints; seeing the two go head to head is heart-poundingly tense, even if the CGI is a little uneven.
In between them, arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) brings chaos with an intimidating sneer, Danai Gurira’s stoic warrior, Okoye, inspires awe with her athletic strength, and Lupita Nyong’o’s old flame adds heartfelt urgency to T’Challa’s actions. The ensemble’s limelight is stolen entirely, though, by Letitia Wright, who walks away with the show as the hilariously sassy, and tech-smart, Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister and very much the Q to his James Bond. It’s a wonderfully eclectic cast, and they enable Coogler to juggle an endless array of tones and genres, from espionage and humour to action, sci-fi and romance. This is an epic that has time for fights atop waterfalls as well as spaceships, car chases and high-tech trainers as well as ancestral planes.
Coogler, who is only on his third feature film, pulls it off with a confident swagger, not losing the intimacy of Fruitvale Station or the slickly choreographed set pieces of Creed. That film, too, focused on the notion of tradition butting heads with modernity, as a father-son dynamic framed a franchise’s self-reinvention for a new era. The same transition is inherently baked into Black Panther’s rich texture and emotional power. It’s a study of the mythologising of fathers we inherit our homes from, the stereotyping of other countries we colonise resources from, and the overlooking of those to whom we shut our cultural borders. It’s not just about man’s responsibility to his family, but a nation’s responsibility to other nationalities – a specific story made universal.
To do all that is an achievement in itself. To do all that within the rigid framework of a Marvel sequel is jaw-dropping. Like Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok, Coogler makes his presence behind the camera felt with an infectious enthusiasm, working with Ruth Carter’s vibrant costumes and Mudbound DoP Rachel Morrison’s cinematography to produce a gorgeous, Afrofuturist blockbuster that doffs its cap to the generations gone before and then gets on with the important business of welcoming the ones who have been waiting to share the stage. What an inspiring rush it is to experience it unfold. “Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows,” T’Challa declares in one electric speech. “We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other.” All hail the king.
Black Panther is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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